12/22/10

I Should Have Waited Until Today

I'm wondering how they eat and breathe and other science facts.Welcome, won't you?

Those of you who failed to act on my earlier tip are now being rewarded for your forbearance. Strategy First's current sale eclipses their old one in terms of discount. From now until January fourth of next year, the coupon code "STRATEGYGAMER" will knock 50% off the price of any title in their inventory. That'll net you Darkstar for about fifteen bucks.

Should you buy Darkstar? The holiday season makes many demands on my time, so I probably won't finish it for another few weeks. But, since I seem to be shilling it every few days anyway, I suppose I ought to give you my impressions thus far. Check them out after the cut.

Pre-review based on two to three hours in the game:

It's a slow-paced adventure game in the style of Myst, set on a drifting starship. The story hook is trite (the main character has amnesia; we've never seen that before) but once you get into it, it’s absorbingly told. Clive Robertson performs player avatar John O’Neill like someone who’s been asleep for years and can’t quite wake up all the way, which is about as engaging as it sounds. All the other major parts have been cast with MST3K alumni, though, and these people are highly entertaining. The best so far includes Frank Conniff as SIMON the robot, who tends to show up and help you with puzzles after you’ve already solved them. Also, Trace Beaulieu as the missing first mate, who’s either your best friend or worst enemy, depending on how you interpret the clues thus far. J. Elvis Weinstein shows up in archive footage as the captain of a previous expedition, meeting certain doom with admirable nonchalant professionalism.

Puzzles are occasionally obtuse but always logical. Example: use of a scanner will show you which buttons on the security keypad opened it previously, but you have to trial-and-error your way through various combinations of them before you stumble on the right code by accident. The ship’s interfaces aren’t needlessly elaborate. Once you figure out which button does what, programming the systems to do what you want them to do is fairly straightforward. I like the fact that once you’ve found a switch (not always an easy task) often all you have to do is flip it.

Art design is gorgeous, well-detailed and full of objects you can interact with. I sometimes find myself wondering why a starship would need marble columns, original works of art with display lighting, sumptuous chaise lounges, wooden chests with puzzle locks, twisting secret passages and so forth, but hey, it makes for a fascinating exploration experience. In an adventure game that’s more important than realism.

Unfortunately, this beautiful game is rendered by ancient, wheezing technology that crashes at least once an hour, resizing my desktop to 1024x768 every time. The user interface is ugly, sluggish, unintuitive and in all other ways horrible. The icon for moving forward is the same as the one for interacting with objects, which makes the genre-required pixel-hunting more difficult than it needs to be. I figured out the interface after a while, but it remains inelegant and cumbersome, like trying to drive a luxury sedan with a hand crank instead of a steering wheel.

I find this extremely odd. Why is manipulating the spaceship easier and more fun than manipulating the person who’s manipulating the spaceship?

Bottom line: Beautiful, well-designed, old-school adventure game buried under obsolete technology and a bad user interface. So-so performance by the lead. Great performances from the supporting cast.